>>--->August 2000: Jackson and contemporaries reviewed
by Tom LeClair.|
Patchwork Girl, Shelley Jackson's brilliant hypertext parable of writing and
identity, generates both its themes and techniques from the kind of
collage-writing intrinsic to hypertext.
Jackson, a published book illustrator as well as author,
creates a digital collage out of her own words and images as she tells us
about the female companion to Frankenstein's monster whose "birth takes place
more than once. In the plea of a bygone monster; from a muddy hole by
corpse-light; under the needle, and under the pen."
Opening Jackson's patchwork narrative, we first encounter a black-and-white
image of the stitched-together protagonist that she cuts and recombines into
the images we encounter at various points throughout our reading. (I have
pieced together the title bar at the top of this lexia from some of these
later versions of this image). The first link takes us to her title page, a
rich crossroads document, to which we return repeatedly, that offers six paths
out: "a graveyard," "a journal," "a quilt," "a story," "broken accents," and a
list of sources. The graveyard, for example, takes us first to a patchwork
image created by cutting and rearranging the title screen, after which we
receive some directions and then reach the headstone, another overview or
crossroads lexia that provides multiple paths; these paths take us to the
lives of each of the beings, largely women, whose parts contributed to the
Patchwork Girl. Jackson endows each tale, each life, with a distinctive voice,
thereby creating a narrative of Bakhtinian multivocality while simultaneously
presenting a composite image of women's lives at the turn of the nineteenth
century. The Everywoman Monster's left leg, we read,
belonged to Jane, a nanny who harbored under her durable grey
dresses and sensible undergarments a remembrance of a less sensible time: a
tattoo of a ship and the legend, Come Back To Me. Nanny knew some stories
that astonished her charges, and though the ship on her thigh blurred and
grew faint and blue with distance, until it seemed that the currents must
have long ago finished their work, undoing its planks one by one with
unfailing patience, she always took the children to the wharf when word came
that a ship was docking, and many a sailor greeted her by name.
"My leg is always twitching, jumping, joggling. It wants to go places.
It has had enough of waiting."
Patchwork Girl makes us all into Frankenstein-readers stitching together
narrative, gender, and identity, for, as it reminds us: "You could say all
bodies are written bodies, all lives pieces of writing." This digital
collage-narrative assembles Shelley Jackson's (and Mary Shelley's and Victor
Frankenstein's) female monster, forming a hypertext Everywoman who embodies
assemblage, concatenation, juxtapositions, and blurred, recreated
identities--one of many digital fulfillments of twentieth-century literary and
pictorial collages. As the monster slyly informs us in a lexia one encounters
I am buried here. You can resurrect me, but only piecemeal.
If you want to see the whole, you will have to sew me together yourself. (In
time you may find appended a pattern and instructions--for now, you will have
to put it together any which way, as the scientist Frankenstein was forced to
do.) Like him, you will make use of a machine of mysterious complexity to
animate these parts.
Like Donna J. Haraway, Jackson rejoices in the
cultural value of monsters. Traveling within Jackson's
multisequential narrative, the finest hypertext fiction thus far to have
appeared, we first wander along many paths, finding ourselves in the graveyard,
in Mary Shelley's journal, in scholarly texts, and in the life histories of
the beings--largely women but also an occasional man and a cow--who provided
the monster's parts. As we read, we increasingly come to realize an assemblage
of points, one of the most insistent of which appears in the way we use our
information technologies, our prosthetic memories, to conceive ourselves.
Jackson's one-hundred-and-seventy-five-year-old protagonist embodies the
effects of the written, printed, and digital word. "I am like you in most
ways," she tells us.
My introductory paragraph comes at the beginning and I have a
good head on my shoulders. I have muscle, fat, and a skeleton that keeps me
from collapsing into suet. But my real skeleton is made of scars: a web that
traverses me in three-dimensions. What holds me together is what marks my
dispersal. I am most myself in the gaps between my parts, though if they
sailed away in all directions in a grisly regatta there would be nothing left
here in my place.
For that reason, though, I am hard to do in. The links can stretch very far
before they break, and if I am the queen of dispersal, then however far you
take my separate parts (wrapped in burlap and greasy fish-wrappers, in wooden
carts and wherries, burying and burning me and returning me to the families
from which I sprung unloved and bastard) you only confirm my reign.
Hypertext, Jackson permits us to see, enables us to recognize the degree to
which the qualities of collage--particularly those of appropriation,
assemblage, concatenation, and the blurring of limits, edges, and
borders--characterize a good deal of the way we conceive of gender and
identity. Sooner or later all information technologies, we recall, have
always convinced those who use them both that these technologies are natural
and that they provide ways to describe the human mind and self. At the early
stage of a digital information regime, "Patchwork Girl" permits us to use
hypertext as a powerful speculative tool that reveals new things about
ourselves, while at the same time to retain the sense of strangeness, of
novelty. Best of all: It is wonderful writing--sharp, bracing, surprising,
George P. Landow,
Professor of English and Art History at BrownUniversity, is the author of
half a dozen books on Victorian literature, art, and religion and several on
digital culture, including Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary
Critical Theory and Technology and Hyper/Text/Theory. He created
and maintains several large websites including The Victorian Web and The Cyberspace, VR, and Critical Theory Web.
Copyright © 1996 ebr
and the author. All rights reserved.